The 1937 Detroit Tigers were a team in transition. Just two years removed from their first World Series title, the Tigers had several regulars who were nearing the end of the line. That included catcher/manager Mickey Cochrane, who suffered a serious beaning early in the season. Cochrane was hit on the head with the pitch, and after nearly dying, he was forced to retire as a player.
That left a giant hole behind the plate, but thanks to stars Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, along with Gee Walker, Pete Fox, and Elden Auker, the team still managed to win 89 games. However, they were far back in the rear view mirror of the New York Yankees, who won the second of four straight pennants they’d claim in the late 1930s.
The biggest bright spot for the Tigers in ’37 was a mammoth rookie with arms like steel girders, strong broad shoulders, a long nose, and a menacing appearance at the dish. In an era when few players stood much more than 5’10 or weighed in at more than 180 pounds, Rudy York was an impressive physical specimen. Born and raised in the deep south, York was a Chippewa Indian, who started working to support his family when he was just eight years old. He became a man quickly, and he looked the part at 6’1 and 210 pounds of muscle.
“York is one-third man, one-third-monster, and one-third Indian,” one scribe wrote after spying him on a minor league field.
As a teenager York played against men two and three times his age, proving himself with the stick. He was named Most Valuable Player of four different minor leagues, and by 1937, the Tigers couldn’t find a reason to keep him off their roster. York was a first baseman by trade, and Detroit had Hank Greenberg at that position. It was an embarrassment of riches for the club. But after Cochrane went down with his injury, York was asked to put on the mask and tackle the catching duties. Having played nearly every position as a youngster growing up, York was suited for the challenge. But few could have realized how impressive he would be in that rookie season.
On August 4, York started behind the plate for the first time, against the Philadelphia A’s. He punished Connie Mack’s team with a three-run homer and another RBI hit. But what would become a record-setting month was just beginning. Two days later he slugged another homer, followed by another the next day and another the next day. On August 14, Rudy belted another homer as part of a 20-7 Tiger rout of the St. Louis Browns. On the 17th, his 24th birthday, York walloped a monstrous home run against the White Sox. Two days later he hit two more dingers.
On August 22, Rudy hit another homer off the Browns, before taking his only game off since assuming the catching duties, in the second half of a doubleheader. Inserted as a pinch-hitter, York socked his 10th home run of the month, a game-tying blow in the 9th. Little less than a week later, in a doubleheader against the A’s, York hit two homers in the opener and one in the nightcap. he hit another hpomer the next day against Philadelphia, also driving in five runs. By now, York was the terror of the American League.
On the 27th, York hit his 15th homer of the month, in a loss to the Boston Red Sox. Three days later, his home run provided the edge in a 5-4 win over the New York Yankees. he was now one shy of Babe Ruth’s record for the most homers hit in a month.
The Tigers squared off against the Washington Senators on the final day of August. Famed Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich wrote:
“The booming bat of 24 year old Rudy York, Detroit’s late entry into the home run race, spoke in tones heard ’round the baseball world this afternoon as one of Babe Ruth’s proudest and supposedly invincible records went crashing into discard.”
York homered in the fourth inning to tie Ruth’s mark, and shortly later, he homered again off Senator right-hander Pete Appleton. It was his 18th home run of the month, breaking Ruth’s mark.
For the month, York had been almost unstoppable, hitting 18 homers, batting .360, and driving in an amazing 49 runs (also a new major league record). He wasn’t nearly as hot in September, but he still swatted five homers to finish with 35 for the year, good for fifth in the AL, despite playing only 104 games. His slugging percentage (.651) ranked third behind only Joe DiMaggio and teammate Greenberg.
York’s mark for homers in a month was surpassed in 1998 by Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, but his 18 homers are still an American League record. The fact that he played a new position, and such a demanding position as catcher, and managed to hit 18 homers in one month while doing so, remains one of the most amazing accomplishments in Detroit Tiger history.